Pittsburgh Ballet delivers a mixed bag in its annual set at Hartwood

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Everyone cooperated -- even the weather -- as the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre took to the stage for its annual outing at Hartwood Acres Thursday night.

A large crowd came to partake of the family activities, including crafts, photo opportunities and what looked to be a popular ballet lesson at the front of stage by PBT staffer Anastasia Wovchko. And the restaurateurs provided a delicious buffet, by all accounts the best ever, under the bright yellow-and-white striped tent.

And the dance itself? It was a split decision.

On paper it looked like the perfect program, with the classically oriented "Raymonda Variations" and George Balanchine's "Sylvia Pas de Deux," balanced by a contemporary contingent, Viktor Plotnikov's ferociously whimsical "Shall We Dance" and Dwight Rhoden's intensely spiritual "Ave Maria."

The first ballet of the night is always a challenge because the setting sun is taking a bow at the same time, casting its light directly into the dancers' eyes. Artistic director Terrence Orr is generally clever in choosing a pleasant appetizer of a dance and, in this case, the ensemble's peach-colored tutus seemed to grab the sky's colors.

Mr. Balanchine loved Alexander Glazunov's music from "Raymonda" and used it several times over the course of his choreographic career, including his own variation, also titled "Raymonda Variations." But this piece was staged by Mr. Orr with sections taken directly from the full-length ballet.

I prefer Mr. Balanchine's version, playing as it does with the spirit of the music. Mr. Orr taps the grand nature of, well, a grand full-length ballet. But the promenades -- indeed much of the ensemble work -- came across as stiff rather than with the expansive nature that the classical idiom needs.

That wasn't true of the leads, however. Christopher Budzynski is never stifled by stage or light problems and always turns in an exciting performance. In this case, he unveiled some new slicing cabrioles, which also had some welcome swagger.

Partner Alexandra Kochis is gaining more confidence and energy herself, and looked like a bright, multifaceted diamond that sparkled in the setting sun.

Mr. Balanchine's "Sylvia Pas de Deux" is a real showpiece, with a fresh look at virtuosity. While Julia Erickson and Alexander Silva had a look of clean elegance in their performance, they could have toyed with those virtuosic elements more, particularly in Ms. Erickson's numerous balances and Mr. Silva's jumps. As it was, they only unleashed their real power in a superb exchange at the end, whipping the audience into a frenzy.

While the company tended to hold back, perhaps concentrating on the control and precision of ballet itself, the contemporary works had a generosity that fit in with the casual chic of the night.

Mr. Rhoden's "Ave Maria" has always been a showstopper, mostly for the ballerina's sustained balance en pointe. But Eva Trapp, sporting a great new short haircut, was an emotional vortex in this duet about Adam and Eve wallowing in their post-Eden guilt, and Robert Moore provided unwavering support in the tangle of shapes.

That left Mr. Plotnikov's ""Shall We Dance." The question was whether the structure and choreography would hold up without the sophisticated lighting of the work's premiere this past spring at the Byham Theater. As it turned out, the piece still looked much too long in this "simplified" version for Hartwood's outdoor venue.

The Gershwin-inspired piece was still chock-full of props -- larger-than-life notes and letters, hockey sticks and more, although I particularly liked the impressionistic umbrella sequence, both colorful and soothing.

This was choreography of all-but-the-kitchen-sink variety, so chances were that there was something to like along the way for everyone. And Mr. Plotnikov's unbridled creativity created what seemed to be a playground for the dancers, which they appeared to enjoy. But while creating this cacophony of shapes and situations, he lost his focus on the dance at hand -- ballet in all of its technical beauty and awe.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net .


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